The Housing Ombudsman has made a finding of severe maladministration against Woking Borough Council after an 83-year-old woman was left living in a property without heating or hot water for almost three years.
The Ombudsman has ordered the council to pay the resident £6,000 in compensation after an investigation found that it failed to take appropriate action to resolve the situation, dating back to September 2017.
The council, which owns 3,300 homes in the borough, missed several opportunities to fix the problem and took limited action to check the woman’s welfare, only visiting her for annual gas checks which were twice unsuccessful.
The Ombudsman found that the “lack of heating and hot water in the property over an extensive period caused the resident severe distress and inconvenience”.
Richard Blakeway, Housing Ombudsman, said: “While the landlord may have found this case difficult due to problems accessing the resident’s property, its lack of action was deeply concerning. It left an elderly, potentially vulnerable, resident in need of assistance.
“The landlord missed opportunities to put things right, only making contact when an annual gas inspection was due. These failings demonstrated a lack of regard to the landlord’s obligations as well as a lack of concern for any health and safety risks.”
The 83-year-old first contacted the council in September 2017 after reporting she had no heating or hot water supply. However, the landlord was unable to gain access and capped the gas supply six weeks later.
The Ombudsman found no evidence of further action until September 2018 when the landlord carried out an annual gas safety visit. However, no effort was made to investigate what repairs might be needed.
The resident’s gas supply stayed capped for two more years as she refused to allow engineers access to the property. During that time she was left without an alternative source of heating or hot water, which the landlord later admitted it should have provided.
While the annual gas checks were in line with the landlord’s obligations, the Ombudsman found that it was “not appropriate to comply with these alone”.
The Ombudsman said that it would have been reasonable for the landlord to take legal action to gain access to carry out repairs “given its responsibilities as well as the implications to the health and safety” of the resident.
The Ombudsman added that the lack of evidence provided by the landlord “raises concerns about the level of oversight and management the landlord had in relation to the managing company”.
In addition to being asked to pay compensation, the council was ordered to offer the woman alternative ways of heating her home and of cooking hot food in the short term.
The Ombudsman also asked the council to prove that it had a “robust” plan to restore the gas supply at the property.
Blakeway added: “I welcome the landlord’s prompt actions following our decision and it is now crucial for it to learn lessons arising from our investigation.
“I would encourage other landlords to consider the learning this report offers for their own services.”
The Housing Ombudsman’s publication of the case comes a few weeks after it published a report on complaints it had received about heating, hot water and energy in social housing.
Recurring issues identified by the Ombudsman included unnecessary delays in resolving issues and landlords’ poor management of contractors, including “weak and long-term” contractual arrangements.
Louise Strongitharm, Woking Borough Council’s director of housing, commented: “We are very sorry for any distress caused to the resident concerned. Whilst the access difficulties have been challenging for staff and contractors over an extended period, we should have acted more proactively in addressing the issues.
“Since receiving the Housing Ombudsman’s report, we have carried out all of the recommendations, including paying compensation, offering the resident alternative heating and cooking options, as well as providing a plan to repair the boiler and reinstate the gas supply to the property. We have also learnt from this case and made some immediate improvements, including reviewing and adapting our complaints procedure accordingly.
“We continue to work with and support the resident to find a permanent solution to their housing situation.”